THE KANSAS CITY MASSACRE
The sun was shining brightly over Kansas City, Missouri, on the morning of June 17, 1933. Outside Union Station, the usual flurry of activity was taking place as people came and went on the arriving and departing trains and crowds milled about, hurrying to catch their train as it was leaving the station or greeting loved ones who had just arrived by rail.
|Kansas City's Union Station in 1933|
Suddenly, the pleasant day was shattered by the sound of machine gun fire, echoing from the plaza parking lot. People began to scream and run for their lives and automobile tires squealed, men’s voices cried out in anger and over and over came the harsh retorts of gunfire. By the time that it finally came to an end, five men were dead and two others were wounded. Blood-soaked bodies were twisted inside a bullet-scarred 1932 Chevrolet and others lay sprawled on the pavement outside, glistening with crimson gore.
What no one knew in those panicked moments was that six of the victims were law enforcement officers, three of whom were agents of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI. The seventh man, who lay dead with most of his head blown away, was a criminal who the police officers and federal agents were returning to Leavenworth, a prison from which he had made one of his famous escapes. His name was Frank Nash and he was one of the most successful bank robbers of the Depression-era. Nash had been nicknamed “Jelly” because of his uncanny ability to escape from even the most secure prisons.
But it was not only prison that Frank Nash escaped from. Some say that on the day of the Kansas City Massacre, Nash managed to escape from the grave, as well. His body may have been shattered by bullets that morning --- but his spirit has managed to survive.
Frank Nash never achieved the notoriety that was given to the famous bank robbers of the day, but he enjoyed a career that was just as profitable and perhaps even more daring than most. Nash was born in Indiana in 1887 and in 1902, his father, John O. Nash, moved the family to Oklahoma so that he could establish a hotel in Hobart. As a young man, Frank worked in the hotel’s kitchen as a cook but eventually, his father turned over the ownership of the place to his daughter, Alice, and her husband, John Long. Frank was not disappointed. He never believed that he was cut out for hotel work, either in the kitchen or as a front desk clerk. He was looking for more excitement and soon found it by committing a series of small burglaries around the Hobart area. In 1913, he teamed up with two accomplices and they continued their successful series of crimes until Nash grew to suspect that one of them had talked to the police. Without a second thought, Nash murdered him.
|Frank "Jelly" Nash|
Nash was arrested and brought to trial but managed to get acquitted. He then murdered a witness who had testified against him and, for that; he was sentenced to serve a life term at Oklahoma’s McAlester State Prison. Nash was a model prisoner at McAlester and early in 1918, his sentence was commuted to 10 years. In July 1918, he was given a full pardon and released. In a short time, he was back to committing crimes again. Nash was next arrested in October 1919 after a series of minor robberies made him a suspect in a bank heist that was pulled in Cordell, Oklahoma. This time, the charges were dropped.
He then put together a gang to rob the bank in the small farming community of Corn, Oklahoma. He was arrested and convicted again and sent back to McAlester to serve a 25-year sentence. Remarkably, the former convict got another reduction in sentence. On December 29, 1922, the governor signed an order commuting Nash’s lengthy sentence to just five years, and the next day he was set free.
Over the next eight months, Nash is believed to have taken part in a number of murders and robberies, mostly with the Al Spencer gang. On August 20, 1923, he took part in the holdup of a mail train in Osage County, Oklahoma, that turned out to be the country’s last great horseback train robbery. The gang made off with $20,000 in cash and bonds but not before Nash brutally assaulted a mail custodian, leaving him with a serious concussion. Nash remained on the run after this robbery until late autumn 1923, when he was discovered working as a ranch hand in Mexico. His boss refused to turn him over to U.S. authorities while Nash was still employed in the country but compromised with officials by sending him over the border on a bogus errand. He was quickly arrested.
On March 3, 1924, Nash was sentenced to 25 years in Leavenworth for robbery and assault. He didn’t receive any political help or clemency this time, but he did receive unusual privileges for a prisoner with his past record. He was a model prisoner at Leavenworth and was made a trusty. After being given an outside assignment in October 1930, he calmly walked away from the prison and disappeared. What Nash did after his escape is not only unclear but it may also be the stuff of legend. It is known that he hooked up with the Ma Barker- Alvin “Creepy” Karpis gang for some time after meeting up with them in St. Paul. It’s believed that Nash may have known the Barkers from his days in Oklahoma, but no one really knows for sure. Nash is also believed to have worked briefly for the Capone mob, with the rackets in Kansas City, and with several small outfits organizing and carrying out robberies and burglaries.
In the early part of 1933, Nash underwent plastic surgery to straighten his crooked nose and he purchased a toupee to try and hide his well-known bald head. These changes were not very effective given the bank robber’s distinctive appearance, so he and his new bride, Frances Luce, decided to get away to one of the underworld’s most protected locations, Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Unfortunately for Frank Nash, federal agents, who considered the Hot Springs police department to be one of the most unreliable in the county, kept the White Front under almost constant surveillance. On June 16, 1933, Agents Frank C. Smith and F. Joseph Lackey from the Bureau of Investigation’s Oklahoma City office spotted Nash lounging with a bottle of beer in front of the cigar store. They followed him to a horse betting parlor, where he was placed under arrest and rushed out of town.
The two Bureau of Investigation agents drove into Fort Smith and at 8:30 p.m., they spirited their manacled prisoner aboard the Missouri Pacific Flyer headed for Kansas City. When they arrived, they would be met the following morning by more federal officers and local police officers, who would accompany them on the final leg of their trip to Leavenworth. Realizing that Nash’s criminal friends might try and help him escape, the agents kept their route a secret. The agents joked in their stateroom with Nash about his new disguise, a red wig that he had bought to cover his bald head. Nash good-naturedly shrugged, “I paid a hundred bucks for it in Chicago. You do what you can.” He told them that he also had his nose straightened and then asked the agents not to pull on his mustache because that was the real thing.
Word spread about Nash’s capture, passing from Galatas in Hot Springs to Herb Farmer, outside Joplin, to Verne Miller, the member of the Barker-Karpis gang who was living in Kansas City. Miller learned that an unnamed prisoner was heading to Kansas City by train and he began making arrangements to meet him. On the morning of June 17, there were a number of people waiting to see “Jelly” Nash. Federal agents Raymond Caffrey and R.E. Vetterli and city detectives W.J. “Red” Grooms and Frank Hermanson were waiting to escort Nash to Leavenworth in their car. Also waiting were five or more gangsters, the would-be rescuers of Frank Nash. One of them was definitely Verne Miller but the identities of the others are in serious doubt to this day.
When the Missouri Pacific Flyer pulled into the station, Agent Lackey instructed Smith to stay with Nash in the stateroom while he went to the loading platform to find his contacts. Establishing their credentials to be legitimate, Lackey then asked the men to help him survey the immediate area. All were satisfied that nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Lackey then went back to the train to retrieve Nash. As Miller and the other waiting gangsters surveyed the scene and determined that the prisoner was Nash, they went out to the parking lot and took up positions among the parked automobiles.
Nash was led from the train platform and through the station toward the outdoor plaza by the two agents, Lackey and Smith, who both carried shotguns, and by Otto Reed, police chief of McAlester, Oklahoma. The bandit was still wearing his ridiculous toupee, which kept slipping off his head. The trio, joined by the sour lawmen, began to get into a Chevrolet that was parked in the plaza. Nash got into the front seat and Lackey, Smith and Reed got into the back. Agent Caffrey walked around the automobile to the driver’s side when a thunderous voice yelled at the lawmen from across the parking lot, “Up, up! Get ‘em up!”
Frozen in shock, the agents and the detectives looked up to see three men standing on the running boards of a nearby car, pointing machine guns in their direction. The man who had yelled at them waved his weapon back and forth while another, heavyset man pointed the muzzle of his gun directly at their windshield. For the next several moments, the entire parking lot was frozen in time. The lawmen dared not move and bystanders stood gaping at the drama that was playing out in front of them. Police detective “Red” Grooms moved first. He jerked his pistol out and squeezed off two shots, hitting the heavyset man in the arm.
The wounded gangster never paused. He shouted, “Let ‘em have it!” A second later, he pulled the trigger of his machine gun and he and the others raked the Chevrolet with bullets. Burning lead ripped into the metal body of the car and shattered the window glass. Agent Caffrey spun to the pavement, dead before he hit the ground. Police Chief Reed took several bullets to the chest and fell to the floor of the car. Agents Smith and Lakey were also hit several times and pitched forward onto the floorboards. Lackey somehow managed to pull himself up and thrust his revolver out the window, returning a few shots. The weapon was shot out of his hand. Agent Vetterli and detectives Grooms and Hermanson were all wounded and fell to the pavement, scrambling for any cover they could find.
Inside the car, Nash waved frantically at the gangsters with handcuffed wrists. He screamed at them, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot me!” His voice was silenced by machine gun fire as bullets ripped away most of his head.
Bystanders ran screaming for cover as bullets cut through the air. Many ducked behind cars, while others merely dropped to the pavement and covered their heads with their hands. Mrs. Lottie West, a caseworker for the Traveler’s Aid Society, witnessed the massacre from the station. She spotted a police officer that she knew, Mike Fanning, who came running to see what was going on in the parking lot. She screamed at him, “They’re killing everybody!”
Bullets were now bouncing into the pavement in front of the car. They tore into the already-wounded
lawmen, killing detectives Grooms and Hermanson.
Mrs. West screamed at Officer Fanning, “Shoot the fat man, Mike! Shoot the fat man!”
Fanning later recalled: “I knew she meant the big man whose machine gun was doing such bloody work. I aimed at him and fired. He whirled around and dropped to the ground. I don’t know whether I hit him or whether he fell to escape. In any event, he got up, fired another volley into the car, and ran toward a light Oldsmobile car, which roared west towards Broadway. As the car raced out of the parking lot I saw three more men in it and there may have been more.”
Just as Fanning was about to walk over to the lawmen’s car, which was by now a smoldering, bullet-riddled ruin, a 1933 Chevrolet with more gunmen inside sped past the parked car and fired into it from the rear. As the second car sped away, Fanning ran over to the lawmen’s auto and looked inside. He reported. “It was in shambles. In the front seat, a man was dead under the steering wheel. On the rear seat was another dead man. On the right was an unconscious man but he was groaning. A third man lay face down on the floor. I could see that he was alive.”
Agent Vetterli, holding a wounded arm, staggered over to where Fanning stood. He stared down at the pool of blood that was gathering on the pavement at their feet. Five men were dead: federal agent Caffrey, Chief Reed, detectives Hermanson and Grooms, and Frank Nash, the man the shooting supposedly had been designed to set free.
The bullet-riddled smoking ruins of the law enforcement car – with the bodies of the slain men still inside.
In hours, newspapers across the country screamed headlines about the “Kansas City Massacre.” The public was shocked and federal agents and local lawmen scoured the Kansas and Missouri countryside looking for the escaped gunmen. Witnesses tentatively identified one of the killers as Verne Miller and Mrs. West was sure that the “fat man” had been Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The authorities deduced that the third gunner must have been Floyd’s sidekick, Adam Richetti.
That was the way that J. Edgar Hoover began presenting it to the press and since that time, it has largely been accepted as the truth. Basically, the official story was that when news of Nash’s arrest reached his pal, Verne Miller, he went to John Lanzia, an underboss for Kansas City’s corrupt political leader Tom Pendergast. Lanzia declined to put any of his own men at risk in a rescue attempt, and Miller had to recruit Floyd and Richetti, who were passing through town and were conveniently hiding out at his house. The attackers opened up with machine guns and killed Nash in the battle that followed. That is the official story but in more recent times, it appears that the FBI account may be based more on speculation, perhaps even perjury (survivors could not initially identify Floyd or Richetti), than on actual evidence. Many believe that it was a very public way for Hoover to give the bureau the excuse that it needed to carry firearms and to make arrests without using local lawmen. Soon after the massacre, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a law that broadened the agency’s jurisdiction and authority. Agents were allowed to carry firearms and given almost a free hand in their pursuit and apprehension of criminals.
It is also believed that the official statement was used as a way to directly go after Floyd and Richetti. In October 1934, Floyd and Richetti were spotted by Ohio authorities, who captured Richetti after a gunfight and then called in agents from Chicago. The group literally stumbled across Floyd as he was running across a field and killed him. Examined at the mortuary, Floyd’s shoulder bore no scars from a wound that he was supposed to have received in Kansas City. Adam Richetti was executed in 1938 and he swore to his grave that he and Floyd had no part in the massacre.
So, if Floyd and Richetti didn’t kill those five men in Kansas City, who did?
One of the shooters was undoubtedly Verne Miller. Miller, who worked for a time with the Barker-Karpis Gang, was an expert marksman who had learned his craft as a machine-gunner in the service during World War I. After being discharged from the Army, he returned home to South Dakota where his prowess with firearms earned him a job as a policeman. Later, he was elected sheriff but Miller felt constricted by the law and turned to a life of crime, first as a bootlegger and later as a bank robber. After a series of arrests, he ended up in St. Paul, where he met Barker and Karpis, and then drifted to Chicago, where he hired out as a gunman. Miller was known for his violent temper and often erratic behavior and the Kansas City Massacre has all of the earmarks of the kind of unstable operation that he would plan.
In the hours after the massacre, the police trailed Miller to his home after the shooting but found that he had fled. They found bloody rags in his living room, but nothing else. Miller and his current girlfriend, Vivian Mathias, had escaped to Chicago. On October 31, 1933, federal agents raided their apartment but Miller had escaped. Mathias was taken into custody and charged with harboring a fugitive.
Almost a month later, on November 29, the naked and mutilated corpse of Verne Miller was found in a roadside ditch outside Detroit. His hands and feet were tied and he appeared to have been tortured before his death. His skin had been burned with flatirons, an ice pick had been used on his tongue and face and he had been badly beaten. His captors had finished him off by crushing his skull with some sort of heavy object. To the investigators who had been pursuing him, Miller’s murder had all of the signs of an organized crime execution.
Underworld theories surfaced about who else might have been involved in the massacre. It seemed to be common knowledge that Floyd and Richetti had not, so who else was in the car? Two of the most often suggested accomplices were little-known gunmen Maurice Denning and William “Solly” Weissman.
Strangely, Weissman was found murdered just two weeks after Miller’s body was discovered. He had also been beaten and tortured and then was dumped along a road outside of Chicago. Maurice Denning was never seen again, dead or otherwise. Were these three men killed because they botched the rescue of Frank Nash – or because of something else?
One of the most prevalent theories behind the Kansas City Massacre is that it was never designed to help Frank Nash escape from custody, but rather to make sure that he was permanently silenced. Many believe that powerful figures in the underworld were afraid that Nash might talk about things he knew to stay out of prison, endangering their operations. Rather than let him be taken into custody, they had him killed – and hired Miller, Denning and Weissman to pull the trigger. Then, because they knew who had ordered the hit to be carried out, killed those three, as well.
We will likely never know for sure what really happened but there is one rumor that circulated in mob circles that suggests that the assassins may not have been the ones who really killed Frank Nash. He may have accidentally been killed by a federal agent instead. There was (and still is) speculation that the wounds that killed Frank Nash and Agent Caffrey, both in the front seat of the car, may have been caused by a weapon that was in the back seat, in the hands of another federal agent. The story has persisted that when the fighting broke out, the agent began fumbling with the action of an unfamiliar 16-gauge shotgun that was loaded with steel ball bearings instead of the customary lead buckshot. The shotgun then went off by accident, blowing most of Nash’s head all over the roof of the car and fatally wounding Agent Caffrey. Some of the ball bearings were reportedly found in the agent’s body during an autopsy.
But whatever happened, the end result was the same and Frank “Jelly” Nash had his life instantly snuffed out. Whether he was killed by accident by a shot that he never saw coming, or whether he was slain by his friend Verne Miller, his spirit now refuses to rest. To this day, local stories have it that his ghost can still be found wandering through Kansas City’s Union Station. Does he walk that last stretch through the station on his way to the lawmen’s car – and to his doom? Or is he searching for his killers, wondering what became of the men who betrayed him back in 1933?
Stories of a haunting have swirled about Union Station for many years. Some people have reported seeing figure of men in dark suits outside the building, near where the massacre took place. When approached, these figures always vanish. There are also stories of footsteps being heard on the pavement outside and inside the building, in the corridor leading out to the parking lot. Some have surmised that these phantom footsteps may be a re-enactment of the last steps taken by Frank Nash and the federal agents as they walked to their doom.
The ghost of Frank Nash is perhaps the most commonly reported specter connected to the massacre.
Visitors and staff members have reportedly seen Nash’s ghost at several different locations in Union Station, both in the daytime and at night.
Does Frank Nash still lurk in the darkest corners of Kansas City’s Union Station? And if he does, how long will he linger here? It seems very possible that his confused and tortured spirit has remained behind at the place where he met his tragic end but how long he may stay here is a question that no one is able to answer.